Writing about a character waking up can be a challenge, especially since waking up is something we do in a semiconscious state. It can be tough to pinpoint exactly how it feels, and that makes it difficult to write convincingly. In addition to that, writers seem split on when to start a scene with a character waking up, and whether you should do it at all.
Is It Bad To Start a Scene with a Character Waking Up?
If you’ve ever been in a creative writing or fiction class, then you’ve definitely been told that it is a bad idea to start a story or scene with your main character waking up. Most experienced writers and instructors strongly advise against it. But why? Is it always a bad idea?
And really, the answer is no; you can pull off a good waking up scene that draws readers into the story. By writing a character waking up in a specific way, you can set the tone for the rest of the scene and offer a unique glimpse into the character’s personality.
However, people tend to discourage starting a scene like this, not because it is inherently bad, but because it is a tactic often used lazily. Many beginner writers rely on this technique as an easy way to transition between scenes. If the transition is abrupt, glossed over, or otherwise disregarded by the writer, then it definitely won’t be taken seriously by the reader.
If you’re considering starting a scene, or your entire story, with your main character waking up, take a moment to consider why you want to write it like that. Do you have a good reason to? Is there another way you could start it? If you don’t have a good reason for writing it like that, you probably shouldn’t do it.
When to Write a Character Waking Up
If you’re going to show a character waking up, make sure there’s a good reason for it. If you just don’t know how else to start a story, and you have your character wake up and start making coffee, chances are your readers are going to get bored.
If you want to keep your readers interested, focus on the implications of waking up. If your character is awake, then they have to do something. What is it they have to do? Are they looking forward to it, or dreading it? Do they struggle to get up, because they are injured, hungover, or groggy? Give the readers something to think about. Instead of just telling them the character is waking up, let them wonder why the character reacts a certain way when they do get up.
The act of waking up is not inherently interesting, so it is your job to present it in an interesting way. Use it as a way of emphasizing something, like your character’s memories, fears, habits, and plans. Make waking up a point to focus on, instead of just a lazy transition. And, however tempting it may be, do not overuse this technique. If every scene starts with the character waking up, it’s going to feel mundane.
If your character suffers from insomnia, then you may find yourself writing many scenes with them waking up, often still tired. If you want some guidance for writing about that specifically, I have another article that could help you out: Losing Sleep Over How to Write a Character with Insomnia?
How to Describe Waking Up
Waking up is a fundamental part of being human; we all do it. The next time you wake up in the morning or from a nap, try to focus on how it feels. Don’t reach for your phone or the lights, and instead think about what it feels like to come back to reality. Were you dreaming? Did you wake up slowly or abruptly? Did you set an alarm? How soon after waking up did you get out of bed? If you focus on how it really feels to do something in your life, you’ll be able to write about it more convincingly.
With that said, obviously not everyone wakes up the same way. And of course, waking up in the middle of the night with a hangover is going to feel different from sleeping in late on a weekend. Writing about different situations is going to require different strategies.
(As a side note, if you want to write about drunk or hungover characters, I recommend taking a peek at my other article: How to Write a Drunk Character.)
How to Describe Someone Waking Up in the Morning
Waking up in the morning is generally pretty mundane, but there are ways to make it interesting.
If the character wakes up naturally, then try to draw the scene out so it progresses in a slow and sleepy manner. Introduce details one at a time and try to show the process of things coming into focus. In general, try to avoid actually writing the phrase “things came into focus,” since you can show your readers how that feels instead of telling them that it’s happening.
Overload the scene with descriptive language and details. Bring the scene to life as much as possible, and really set the stage for the rest of the story. Describe what the character hears when they wake up, to clue the readers in to where the character lives. Do they hear birds or busy city streets? Do they hear nothing at all? What about how they feel? Is it cold? Bright?
Don’t just let readers know that the character is awake, let them experience what the character feels as they are waking up. In addition to the physical details, include little hints about the character’s personality based on how they feel about waking up. Instead of just mentioning the sounds of the city, you could describe it with negative language, to suggest that the character hates living in the city. Or, focus on the serene calmness of the sounds of nature and the coziness of the bed, to create a comfortable feeling right off the bat.
Alternatively, if the character wakes up to an alarm, they are probably going to wake up abruptly, and with less time to absorb their surroundings. Alarm clocks represent structure and routine, and your readers will immediately associate the character with being more systematic and less carefree. You should still set the scene with some descriptions to orient your audience, but in general, you should strive to cut back on the flowery language. The character needed to wake up to do something, so they can’t waste time listening to birds.
How to Describe Someone Waking Up from a Nightmare
Like with an alarm clock, a person waking up from a nightmare is going to wake up rather suddenly. They probably won’t be paying attention to the details of the room, and instead, are going to be disoriented and frantic. A nightmare triggers the body’s fight-or-flight reflex, so the character’s heart will be beating fast, and they will be alert and ready to act to defend themself from whatever they were dreaming about.
After waking up, the character will need to calm down before they can get on with the story. This is a great opportunity to explore the impact of the nightmare and the sentiment of the character. Are bad dreams commonplace, or is the character unused to waking up like this? Is the nightmare an echo of a bad memory, or the result of some supernatural influence?
Have the character think about the details of the dream after the fact, but do not explain the entire dream for the readers. Give little hints about what it could mean to give readers something to think about. If the dream is foreshadowing a future event or an ongoing struggle, don’t give everything away right from the beginning!
Your character may have a difficult time coming back to reality after a nightmare. When this happens, they could experience sleep paralysis upon waking up. This is when a person is unable to speak or move for several minutes after waking up, and may hallucinate seeing or feeling an evil presence like a demon, a figure from their past, or something they fear. You could use this as a tactic to extend the nightmare into the character’s waking life, to emphasize the impact the nightmares have on them.
If you want to read more about how to incorporate dreams and nightmares into your story, check out my article: Writing About Dreams and Nightmares.
How to Describe Someone Waking Up from Being Unconscious
If your character “fell asleep” as a result of getting knocked on the head then they aren’t going to wake up the same way as they would any other time. The first thing they’re going to notice as they wake up is how bad their head hurts. A person has to be hit really hard to lose consciousness, so your character is in for a pretty bad headache when they come to, and they’re going to notice the pain before they can register any other sensation. Make sure that is the first thing you mention unless the character is woken up forcefully by another character, a loud sound, or something else.
Once the character has had time to overcome the pain, they’re probably going to be pretty disoriented. Show the character trying to work through exactly what happened before they fell unconscious, and have them try to sort through what they know and don’t know. Was it a bad fall? A fight? How much do they even remember? Help the readers along by having the character search for context, like what time it is, where they are, and how they managed to get hurt.
Keep in mind that a character who is struck in the head hard enough to knock them out will endure a concussion. The article How to Write About Brain Damage (Accurately!) can walk you through the specifics of including that detail in your story.
How to Describe Someone Waking Up in an Unfamiliar Place
The perfect time to execute a scene that begins with the character waking up is with a kidnapping. Your character will be just as confused as the readers, and you can use that as your hook to keep readers engaged.
If your character wakes up in an unfamiliar place, chances are, the first thing they’re going to do is start to panic. They may start to wake up groggily, but as soon as they realize they may be in danger, adrenaline is going to kick in and they’ll be fully awake in less than a second.
They’re going to look around at everything to try to figure out where they are, so make sure you describe the scene in as much detail as possible. However, avoid the flowery language. If your character is terrified, they’re going to look at things and not really think about them much, so describe things quickly and visually—and move on.
In this case, waking up isn’t the focus. Have the character realize the situation quickly, so they can progress the story. If they can’t move because they’re tied up, then they might start trying to think of how they got there, and who could be behind it. But in general, the character isn’t going to waste a whole lot of time before they start trying to do something to get out of the situation.
Some Parting Thoughts
No one should be able to tell you what you definitively should or should not write. There isn’t a wrong way to tell a story. If you think starting a scene with a character waking up is the best way to do that, then don’t let anyone stop you. It’s your story after all, and if you write it with care and passion, it’s going to be interesting.
If someone tells you not to write something, don’t take that advice at face value. Try to think about why they’re giving you that advice, and why they think it would help you. It’s not that starting a scene with a character waking up is bad, it’s just that most people don’t do it well. When people tell you not to do it, they’re actually telling you not to use cheap tricks to avoid writing difficult transitions. If you know how to handle a character waking up, then there’s no reason to shy away from putting it in your story.